by Melissa Main
The alarm clock buzzed at 1:45 am, and I turned my weary head to look at the clock. After hugging my husband, Kevin, I climbed out of bed and dressed. I looked at his sleeping body and let out a sigh. After being home only two days, I would have to leave him again for a week. This time it would be without the comfort of phone calls, without his deep, yet gentle, voice.
I walked by Paul’s room and longed to enter, to hug and kiss him goodbye, but I refrained myself. We had said our goodbyes the night before, and he had asked me to let him sleep. Facing days without my son and husband saddened me more than the thought of primitive living conditions and limited showers.
Knocking on Hannah’s door, I discovered that she was already awake. I asked her to get dressed quickly. “Let’s eat one last meal together in the US, a drive-thru breakfast at McDonald’s.”
My husband woke up and dressed in a matter of seconds, ready to spend time with us up to the moment of our departure. I looked over at his face and gave him a kiss as he quietly put the car in reverse and backed out of our driveway. As we pulled through the drive thru, I was surprised to find others in front of us and behind us in the wee hours of the morning.
Pulling into the Bible Fellowship Church’s parking lot, I spotted the charter bus parked in front of the sanctuary. Its doors were open, anxiously awaited our arrival. Forty-six of us wearily stowed our luggage in the baggage compartment before climbing aboard. Although I had hoped that sleep would overtake me on the bus, it darted away each time I attempted to capture it.
I hoped that the sleep that had eluded me on the bus would finally be embraced on the plane. However, this dream never became a reality. We feasted on airport pizza and calzones and enjoyed the company of the Loper family, a family who had traveled to Mexico two years prior. I asked questions to prepare myself for this journey to help orphans. “What’s it like in Mexico?”
Hannah, the youngest Loper and only 10, said, “It smells different there.”
“What? Why does it smell different?”
Carmen, the mom and about my same age informed me, “It’s the sewage there and the garbage.”
Suddenly, my calzone didn’t seem quite so appealing. Gulping down a soft drink, a rare treat, I listened as the Lopers filled me in on the details.
“What’s the food like?”
“You’ll get plenty of rice and beans,” said Patrick.
I looked at the large man before me standing over six feet tall and asked, “Do you get much food there?”
“Well I wasn’t hungry, and I’m a big guy.”
Looking at his size, I took this as a good sign. If he could survive on the quantity of food served, so could I, even if I did have a rather large appetite for a small woman, standing only an inch over five feet.
I glanced over at my daughter Hannah with her long red hair flowing down her back and wondered what she had gotten us into.–
I remembered her pleas. “Mom, I want to go to Mexico. Just think of those orphans. Don’t worry about the money. If God wants us to go, He’ll make a way.”
Her predictions came true. Even though she was only fourteen, she managed to raise over a thousand dollars to pay for her trip. She even raised her spending money. The money poured in just as the faith poured out of her heart.
We moved over to our gate and stood in line for our connecting flight to San Diego, California.
Hannah stepped in line at the gate ahead of me; her last name came before mine now that I was remarried. The church had entered our names alphabetically on Southwest’s website, so I stood in front of Pastor Andy, a balding man in his fifties with a sharp mind and a pleasant personality, as we boarded. His wife had stayed behind due to their new grandbaby’s imminent birth. He had helped orchestrate the trip to La Mision, Mexico, but might be gone for the birth of his grandchild. Although I knew he was making a sacrifice to help the needy people in Mexico, you could never tell it by his face. As he talked to me, a smile stayed on his lips as he chatted with me.
His presence on this trip was needed. After serving in Latin America for years as a missionary, he was fluent in Spanish and possessed a love for people and the Bible. He was one of only three people from our group with a working knowledge of the language.
As I boarded the plane I wondered, how will I contribute to this trip? I know we’ll be building houses, but I wonder if they have something for people like me to do. I wouldn’t be able to put up drywall or lay tile. Just what would I do?
The much needed sleep still eluded me. My fellow passenger on the plane explained his business and career from its beginning to his upcoming retirement. I even learned about his children. The fatigue grew, along with the nagging pain in my chest.
As we waited outside San Diego’s airport, I placed my luggage sideways and sat on it, my weary body refusing to stand and wait on the vans to carry us across the Mexican border. The weather outside was warm, but dry, a pleasant change from Florida’s oppressive heat and humidity.
I boarded one of the five white passenger vans with my daughter, Hannah. The vans were clean on the outside, but the inside of them showed signs of wear, perfect for the rough conditions we would soon be facing. Be2Live, a non-profit organization that organized mission trips to Mexico, had rented the vans for us. Its directors, Phil and Mindy Steiner, would be accompanying us throughout the duration of our stay and orchestrating our meals and volunteer activities.
As we crossed the border, we were asked to pull over by Mexican authorities. They asked a few questions, looked inside our vans, and waved us on. Looking out the window, I was surprised to see many of the signs in English and to see stores such as Home Depot and McDonald’s dotting the landscape. As we neared Tijuana, I noticed the smell Hannah had warned me of earlier. I took my shirt and covered my nose. The stench was worse than I had expected. Raw sewage or garbage or some other type of filth loudly announced its presence. I could not discern the exact culprit, but my nose acknowledged an unwelcome guest on the landscape.
My eyes were riveted to pieces of plywood stuck together with tin covering the top, meager housing for Mexico’s poor. Graffiti plastered on the walls of houses falling down in disrepair. Small houses chiseled out of mountains stood with front yards dropping off into the abyss below. Children with dirty faces wandered around their yards and near the highways. The recession that had humbled the United States in recent years had crushed much of Mexico. What would our mission trip accomplish amongst this sea of poverty?
The startling poverty sat next to a breathtaking landscape. To my right, the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean crashed along the sandy beaches crowded with hotels and an occasional shack. To my left, the rugged, brown terrain rapidly gained altitude and poorly constructed and dilapidated houses stood next to homes that would have graced middle-class America. I had never witnessed such amazing contrasts that existed within the sweep of my eyes.
As the van pulled behind the orphanage gates, I saw Mexican children playing on the playground and waving to us, one of a number of church groups who passed through their lives each year. Our campground was on Door of Faith’s property, a Christian orphanage run by American director. As the vans began their steep ascent to our humble abode, my heart began to beat faster.
Once we were stopped, I grabbed my luggage and dragged it up a tall flight of outdoor cement steps. My body wanted to collapse from fatigue. Fortunately, our cabin was the closest to the restrooms. I wouldn’t have to walk much to get there.
As I stepped inside the cabin, I saw three sets of bunk beds on each side of the room. Some of the top bunks did not have rails along the side. Hannah wisely chose a bunk bed with sides to protect her from a long fall to the cement floor underneath. Glancing at my choices, I picked a bottom bunk near the door. The bunk next to me was rickety and worn. I shook the bed with my hand and it swayed back and forth. “Let’s not stick anyone on this top bunk. I don’t think it’s safe. If we run out of space, I can take a mattress and sleep on the floor.”
Finally, I collapsed on the lower bunk. My heart revolted at the loss of sleep, like an angry child throwing a temper tantrum when tired and worn out. I would have gladly appeased it, but sleep could not be captured because the day was not over and the team still clamored with activity.
Donna, a middle-aged woman with short brown hair and an optimistic personality, looked over at me and said, “It’s time to go to the team meeting.”
“I’m not going,” I said, my reply a bit too blunt. I didn’t want to start complaining.
Donna nodded her head and gave me a sympathetic look. “You take care of yourself.” She had major health issues and seemed genuinely concerned about me.
“You have to go.”
“I can’t. I have problems with my heart, and if I don’t stop and rest now, it’ll just get worse.”
Glancing over at Linda, I said, “I’m feeling sick. Please pick me out a job that I can still do.”
“Sure,” Linda said as she zipped back up her luggage and grabbed her water bottle.
My resolve to keep my health problems hidden had just been broken. It was better to be honest than condemned as lazy. As my heart raced and heavy head refused to move, I felt the urge to use the restroom. When I raised my head, dizziness flooded me. My head hit the pillow and I waited. Maybe my heart would slow down soon. Maybe I would be able to walk again in the next few minutes. Then the thought struck me, What if I can’t walk to the bathroom by myself? How can I help the poor of Mexico if I can’t even walk?
I began to pity myself, confined to bed and shut off from my son and husband. I longed to talk to them, to hear their voices. To see my son show me his muscles and hear him talk about his latest workout session would have been as wonderful as getting an unexpected bonus. Tears threatened to spill from my eyes. If I could just have my son and husband here. Please help me, God. I’d like to do something to help the poor of Mexico.
I lifted my head slowly. The dizziness was still there, but I swung my feet off the bed anyway. After a moment the dizziness subsided enough to stand up.
My legs were weak and unstable. Slowly, I moved one foot in front of the other and made my way to the bathroom. As I walked into the restroom, I looked through the clear windows in the bathroom. Someone can see me in here. Fortunately, everyone else was in the team meeting. I breathed a sigh of relief and finished up in the bathroom.
Wearily I made my way back from the restroom to the bed and collapsed again. My heart rate elevated from the brief stint to the bathroom, I closed my eyes and enjoyed a few minutes of peace before the women from my cabin joined me.
“You were assigned to the painting crew,” said Linda, her sincere smile told me that she hoped that painting would be easy for me. Unfortunately, Raynaud’s syndrome flares up when my heart is grumpy, making it painful for me to raise my arms above my head.
“I can’t paint. I hope there’s something I can do.”
I rubbed my tongue along my teeth and debated. Do I really want to stagger out of bed again? It just isn’t worth it. I enjoyed the rest and fell fast asleep.
The next morning I woke up feeling better than the night before, but I was still sick. I spoke to the Mindy Steiner, one of the directors from Be2Live. “I’m not feeling well. Is there anything I can do here?”
“Would you like to write encouraging notes to everyone? I usually do that for everyone on the mission trip.”
I smiled and grabbed the markers. It wasn’t as exciting as building houses for the poor, working at a daycare, or painting for the orphanage, but it was something. I grasped the small opportunity and looked through my Bible for encouraging verses, verses that spoke of God’s command to love the orphans and care for the needy. I wrote dozens of verses, along with personal notes of encouragement, and placed the notes on the bunks while the members were gone doing the real work of missions.
I searched for small chores such as cooking for the workers at the daycare and orphanage and being a part of their appreciation dinners, but I longed for some meaningful way to contribute. I took some small comfort in grabbing a partner and covering up the bathroom windows. At least people would now be able to use the restroom and shower in privacy.
However, I wanted to help in a significant way and not just be on the receiving end. Pastor Bengston, retired pastor of our church and member of our Mexico mission’s trip, blessed me by encouraging me and giving me wisdom for dealing with my blended family. He gave me insights for dealing with difficult situations, and I appreciated his help. But I wanted to help too.
I prayed to God. I asked Him to send me something to do. I longed to be useful.
On Thursday, with only working day left, I prayed yet again as we entered Casa de Paz, an orphanage just outside of Ensenada, Mexico, with special needs children and adults. Show me someone here who needs to be loved. Show me some way that I can help.
When I looked out at the special needs population at Casa de Paz, a smile captured my face. A sense of relief overwhelmed me. Perhaps I could make a difference here. With over a decade of experience working with people who are developmentally disabled, I felt capable of helping this group.
I waited impatiently for the tour to begin. Evangel, an American college student and volunteer at Casa de Paz for the previous two months, showed us the facility. The Mexican directors were friendly, but they spoke little English. Evangel filled in the gap and introduced us to their ministry. Prayers and Bible reading were a part of their daily routine. That was great to know, but I longed for her to hurry and get to the good part, the house where people with special needs lived.
When I walked into the house with the special needs population, I spotted Alicia and she saw me too. Her long brown hair was neatly combed and her sweet face shone with excitement. She reached out for my hand, and I squeezed hers in return. I hugged her tightly and she rested her head on my shoulder and cried. She moved over to the couch and tugged on my hand. As I sat down on the couch beside her, her head continued to rest on my left shoulder and her arms wrapped around my neck. I could sense that she longed to be loved.
I glanced around the room and observed the surroundings. Despite the limited resources, only two workers to care for eleven people, all the people in the home were clean and neatly dressed.
Evangel continued the talk and the Mexican house mother asked us how she could pray for us. Pray for us. You are the one who needs prayer in this difficult situation.
I overheard one of the men from our group ask who would like to pray for this home. I raised my hand, and he nodded his consent. Another lady with special needs came and placed her hands on my head as I sat with Alicia. “God, please help these people,” I prayed. Tears began flowing down my face. “Please give them more workers. It’s so hard to do this type of work without a break. Please send them help. Please give them the people and the resources they need to care for these precious people.” My heart poured out to God and my voice was audibly shaken, but I knew at that moment that I had fulfilled my purpose for the mission’s trip, sharing God’s love and seeking to provide resources for the needy.